Decisions likely to come soon

Many Gophers with remaining collegiate eligibility are mulling NHL play.

Mark Remme

The more things are expected to change, the more they stay the same.

At least for now.

Of those players presumed most likely to leave the Minnesota men’s hockey team during the offseason, so far only graduated seniors Kellen Briggs and Mike Vannelli are officially gone.

early departures from WCHA

These notable players left their college teams for the NHL while remaining eligible:

Jack Skille
Forward, Wisconsin

Joe Piskula
Defenseman, Wisconsin

Ryan Dingle
Forward, Denver

Andrew Gordon
Forward, St. Cloud State

Mason Raymond
Forward, Minnesota-Duluth

Steve Wagner
Defenseman, Minnesota State

And though first-year center Kyle Okposo is one player with remaining eligibility that could likely bolt for the NHL, the magnifying glass will stay on the defensive unit until all the decisions to stay or go are made.

That’s because if first-year player Erik Johnson and junior Alex Goligoski join Vannelli in leaving the Gophers, Minnesota will lose 75 percent of its blue-line scoring from last year. The trio combined for 103 points this past season.

“There’s no question (it would be a big loss), but there’s nothing you can do,” coach Don Lucia said. “We’ve had discussions, but, ultimately, they’ll make the decisions.”

Goligoski earned first-team All-American honors this season as well as being named the team’s most valuable player. His rights belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

His status is at a premium due to his ability to create plays and rack up assists. Despite battling several injuries that hampered his scoring in the second half of the season, Goligoski remained a keen passer.

Johnson’s position is based more on potential than stats and season accolades. As the No. 1 overall pick in 2006 by the St. Louis Blues, a team looking to reload with young talent in order to regain its position among the league’s elite, Johnson’s upside is a multitalented athlete with size and offensive skill.

During the season, Johnson said much of his decision will weigh on whether it is best for him from a development standpoint to make the next step and increase the level of play around him.

And it seems that is still part of the equation, as Johnson was still undecided last week. He said he will likely try to make a decision “by the end of the month.”

But if these projected early departures leave Minneapolis, it will open the door for a new defenseman or two to take charge on the blue line.

After all, in the Lucia era, the Gophers normally have at least one member on the blue line that consistently has his hands in scoring opportunities.

Whether it be two-time Western Collegiate Hockey Association Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Leopold, first team All-American Keith Ballard or second team All-American Paul Martin, Minnesota brings a strong scoring presence from its defense.

If Johnson and Goligoski become the second and third legs of this defensive trio to leave the Gophers, it will be up to Derek Peltier and David Fischer to take on the load.

Peltier, who would be the lone senior defenseman if Goligoski leaves, will look to add to a solid junior season. Fischer, a highly touted recruit, who was also taken in the first round of last year’s draft, will also be looked to provide more scoring.

“There’s no reason why David won’t make a huge leap in his development,” Lucia said. “The biggest thing he needs to work on is his shot. He didn’t get as many minutes because of the top two guys (Vannelli and Goligoski).”

Combined with defensive recruits Cade Fairchild and Kevin Wehrs, both expected to make their Minnesota debuts next season, the Gophers could have a talented – yet less experienced – group on defense.

But with most, if not all, of the wingers and centers expected to stay, the Gophers’ more experienced offense could take some of the burden off a younger defensive corps, something Lucia realizes could go a long way while his youth at the blue line grow into their full potential as players.

“I think we need everyone to just take another step in their development – their roles are going to grow,” Lucia said. “This was as young of a team as I’ve had. We’ll be good again next year.”